He spent his first 12 years on Manhattan's Upper West Side before moving to Plandome and graduating from Paul Schreiber High School in Port Washington. So you might assume that running his first horse in the Belmont Stakes would be a sentimental journey for Steve Margolis. No, this trip from Kentucky to Elmont is business, not personal.
"I haven't been out on Long Island for many years,''' said the 46-year-old trainer, who moved from the metropolitan area to Louisville in 1997. "My father [Robert] and stepmother [Vicki] moved back to Manhattan many years ago, and my mother [Nancy] has lived on the Upper West Side more than 30 years. My fraternal twin, Dave, lives in a little town up near Saratoga, so I haven't had a connection to the Island for a long time. I pretty much lost touch with everyone I knew.
"I see my brother when I race at Saratoga, but over the years I've only started maybe four or five horses at Belmont.''
Margolis was in the Belmont Park paddock early Thursday afternoon, watching a groom lead around his rangy chestnut colt Stay Put. Although Louisville is home and Churchill Downs is his base, you still can hear the Island in Margolis' accent. It's been softened over time and he married a Kentuckian, Susan Devereux, but Margolis doesn't say "Y'all'' or "Thank yew.''
Stay Put is 20-1 on the morning line for Saturday's race and getting virtually no media attention. He's 3-for-7 lifetime but finished fifth in both his stakes tries this past winter at the Fair Grounds. Winning a minor race May 1 at Churchill made Margolis and co-owners Bert and Elaine Klein and their son Richard consider the Belmont.
"The horse is doing good,'' Margolis said. "We know he's going to be a long shot. He worked well over the track, and we always thought he had a lot of potential. During the whole Fair Grounds meet, we were trying to get into the Kentucky Derby. When we saw his race Derby Day, we all sat down and thought about the Belmont.''
Like many in the 12-horse field, Stay Put is a deep closer, a likely disadvantage in a race without much speed. "He's a long-striding colt,'' Margolis said, "and it doesn't seem like the distance [11/2 miles] will be a problem. Every time [jockey] Jamie Theriot gets off him, he says the horse never seems to get tired. It's just a question of whether he can step up to Grade I competition.''
Three years later, in 2000, he went out on his own. He made his first splash on the national scene in November 2003 at Santa Anita, when long shot Cajun Beat won the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
"Business picked up a little bit after that, but you go through transitions,'' he said. "You lose horses and gain horses.''
Last year Margolis did exceptionally well, winning 19 percent of his 267 starts, with his runners earning almost $1.9 million. He has been even hotter this year, producing 29 victories from his first 105 starters (28 percent).
"We've been fortunate at Churchill, and New Orleans was good to us over the winter,''' he said. "You have to have quality owners who provide you with quality horses.''
Margolis' stable numbers 45 horses, with about 20 owned by the Kleins, who have been a partnership since 1987. Richard Klein is the racing manager for the Louisville family, which breeds its own horses at a Kentucky farm. "They're good people with a passion for the game,'' Margolis said. "They love their horses and do right by them.''
And they've also done right by Margolis, who has been returning the favor.